Are you ready for the Aerospace Challenge?

The Independent is supporting a national competition to find the new generation of engineering excellence.

World air traffic is expected to double in the next 15 years and triple within 20. Yet many air-lanes are already crowded, air traffic control systems close to capacity and major airports overloaded. Consequently, new larger aircraft which can carry even greater numbers of passengers or more freight are needed. There is also pressure from airlines, environmentalists and the travelling public to ensure that these new aircraft are quieter, easier to maintain, more fuel efficient, and offer greater passenger comfort, especially in economy class.

Armed forces also have a continuing demand for new generations of fighters, bombers, freighters, trainers and military helicopters to take advantage of the latest technologies and weapons systems. Among the qualities they seek are greater speed, load-carrying capacity, range, manoeuvrability, and flexibility of usage.

Because development costs are so high, significant numbers of a new aircraft must be sold to break even. Consequently their markets are almost invariably international. Many, like the Airbus and the Eurofighter, are developed and built by international consortia of aerospace companies.

Formidable challenges face the aeronautical engineers who have to design and build these new aircraft. Whether they are working on the new triple-decked A3XX Airbus announced this week by BAE Systems, or a new fast jet trainer for the RAF, they need to exploit the latest technologies, systems and materials.

Meeting customer needs is far from straightforward and trying to incorporate desirable characteristics can lead to design conflicts. For example, planes must be structurally strong and offer good facilities for passengers and crew, but they also need to be as light and as aerodynamically streamlined as possible if optimum performance and fuel efficiency are to be achieved. Compromises have to be made.

One unresolved problem under investigation by aeronautical engineers in the US and in Europe is the problem of the new bigger passenger jets creating more turbulence in their wake. If the new planes have to fly and land further apart to avoid this turbulence, airport capacity may not increase as much as hoped, if at all. Finding the right balance between size and passenger load on one hand and on landing path spacing on the other is vital.

Aeronautical engineers usually specialise in one of the main elements of aircraft design. There are the aerodynamic systems - hydraulic, pneumatic and fuel. And there are the avionics, which are the sophisticated electronic navigational, radar and communication systems.

Although the number of aeronautical engineers is quite small, they are in demand. Dr Kevin Knowles, the head of the Aeromechanical Systems Group at the Shrivenham Campus of Cranfield University says: "Certainly [aerospace] graduates have no difficulty finding jobs. They are not in a field where there is a surplus." He says that BAE Systems (formerly British Aerospace) is recruiting quite heavily and that GKN Westland Helicopters were recruiting heavily last year.

A problem that Dr Knowles identifies is one of attracting suitably qualified young people on to aerospace engineering courses. "We find it increasingly difficult to find well-qualified students with a suitable maths and physics background. Those that do are often lured into the City."

The difficulty of attracting suitably qualified young people into aeronautical engineering has led more than 20 leading organisations in the industry to launch The Schools Aerospace Challenge. Among those supporting the Challenge are The Royal Aeronautical Society, the RAF, Cobham plc, The Defence Procurement Agency, BAE Systems, The Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Hunting Defence, Lockheed Martin and The Independent.

The competition is open to all schools and recognised youth organisations, which can submit as many teams of five youngsters aged 16-18 as they wish.

In the first year the teams will submit their design ideas on a successor to the Hawk Fast Jet Trainer aircraft to meet the needs of the RAF. Teams are expected to suggest suitable suppliers of material, components and systems. They must also give brief advice on five specific issues and explain their reasoning.

The 18 best teams will be guests of the four-day residential Schools Aviation Camp at Cranfield University in August, where they will learn about aircraft and engine design and operation, airliner emergency evacuation, and be given the opportunity to pilot a fixed wing aircraft and a helicopter. The winning team will be named the Schools Aerospace Challenge Team of the Year and will receive a £5,000 cash prize, half going to the sponsoring school or organisation and the balance divided among the team members.

Cranfield is not the only university to offer high quality courses in aeronautical engineering. Last month BAE Systems announced that it had formed a strategic partnership with the Universities of Southampton, Loughborough and Glasgow. BAE Systems will help these universities to develop their existing honours degree programmes through joint advisory groups, the provision of teaching materials, sponsorship of final-year projects, visiting lectureships, student industrial placements, and the interchange of academic and business staff. However, BAE Systems will continue to offer careers and industrial placements to students from other institutions.

Other courses that are rated highly by the Higher Education Funding Councils include Bath, Kingston, Manchester and Salford.

More details of The Schools Aerospace Challenge can be found at www.aerospacechallenge.org

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